Surprise, surprise: Paintings with a twist 2

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), The Annunciation to the Shepherds (1875), oil on canvas, 147.9 x 115.2 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first of these three articles about surprise in narrative paintings, I traced the development of techniques to add a surprising twist to stories told in single paintings, from Duccio in about 1300 to the turn of nineteenth century.

So far, with the exception of the Masaccio, the cause of surprise in each of these images has been visually substantial, and in some cases has dominated the composition. Masaccio’s coin-bearing fish, though, was sufficiently small as to require careful study of the painting. My next example takes this a step further, for very good reason.

Jean Louis Théodore Géricault (1791–1824), The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), oil on canvas, 491 x 716 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Géricault’s monumental painting of The Raft of the Medusa completed in 1818-19 shows a well-known and scandalous story of the day, in which over 130 people on board the French frigate Méduse died when they abandoned onto a makeshift raft. Just fifteen of the 147 people on that raft survived thirteen days before being rescued, and gave harrowing stories of drowning, dehydration, and cannibalism.

After a series of studies, Géricault showed the moment at which the rescuing ship, the Argus, is first seen, as no more than a dot on the horizon. So the cause of surprise is as barely visible to the viewer, as it would have been to those survivors. This puts the viewer in the same raft as the survivors, and some may feel sufficiently drawn into the surprise as to want to wave at that distant ship in the hope of rescue.

The nineteenth century brought many challenges to narrative painting, but in France it was still promoted by the prestigious annual Prix de Rome. The chosen theme for competitors in 1832 was a story about surprise with an unusual twist, Theseus Recognised by his Father.

Theseus, founding father of the city of Athens, was the illegitimate son of the incestuous relationship between his father and Theseus’ half-sister. Left to grow up with his mother, he came to travel to join his father, the King of Athens, bearing the sandals and sword which his father had hidden beneath a large rock. He had to use these to prove his identity to his father.

By the time that Theseus reaches his father’s court, the city and throne are in disarray, and the king is cohabiting with the sorceress Medea, who has promised him a son and heir. She convinces King Aegeus that Theseus is trying to wrest the throne from him, and that his best course is to poison his still-unrecognised son with a cup of deadly aconite.

Just as Theseus is about to put this toxic cup to his lips, Aegeus recognises his sword, thus that his guest is no usurper, but is his son – a major change in fortune indeed. The king knocks the cup away, is re-united with his son at last, and Medea suddenly becomes superfluous and unwanted.

Antoine-Placide Gibert (1806-1875), Theseus Recognised by his Father (1832), oil, dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, France. Image by VladoubidoOo, via Wikimedia Commons.

Antoine-Placide Gibert’s entry, which turned out to be the runner-up, shows the moment of recognition, the king’s right hand just about to knock the goblet of poison from Theseus. Two expressive faces are lit brightly: the king, mouth agape and eyes wide with surprise, and Medea, with a face like thunder as she realises that her conspiracy has been foiled.

This plot, although dependent on knowledge of the story, is similar to many detective and crime novels, and is thoroughly well-told in this single painting.

Hippolyte Flandrin (1809–1864), Theseus Recognized by his Father (1832), oil on canvas, 114.9 × 146.1 cm, École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Hippolyte Flandrin’s winning entry that year shows a few moments later, the poison goblet resting on the table on its side, and King Aegeus in a very similar position as in Gibert’s version. Apart from its neoclassical style, its narrative is expressed more weakly, with little facial expression or body language, and its surprise barely cocks an eyebrow.

One story which came back into fashion after she was declared a symbol of the French nation in 1803 is that of Joan of Arc, Jeanne d’Arc.

Léon-François Bénouville (1821-1859), Joan of Arc Hearing Voices (date not known), media and dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-arts de Rouen, Rouen, France. Image by Wuyouyuan, via Wikimedia Commons.

Léon-François Bénouville’s Joan of Arc Hearing Voices, probably painted between 1845 and his early death in 1859, shows her wide-eyed surprise on being called in a mystical experience. Once again, body language is used to great effect, with Joan’s arms tensed, even down to her hyperextended toes.

Bénouville uses the sky to show Joan’s accompanying visions. Instead of depicting these as distinct from the clouds, as might have been done in earlier religious works, Saints Margaret, Catherine, and Michael are here worked into the cumulus forms heaped up over a town ablaze in the distance, itself a visual link to the wars between the English and French, and perhaps to Joan’s own later martyrdom.

As Joan was being rediscovered, classical narratives were revived too.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Phryne before the Areopagus (1861), oil on canvas, 80 x 128 cm, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Twists and surprise are frequent features of the narrative paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme, from which I have chosen Phryne before the Areopagus (1861) as perhaps his most visually arresting.

Phryne was a highly successful and very rich courtesan (hetaira) in ancient Greece who, according to legend, was brought to trial for the serious crime of impiety. When it seemed inevitable that she would be found guilty, one of her lovers, the orator Hypereides, took on her defence. A key part of that was to unveil her naked in front of the court, in an attempt to surprise its members, impress them with the beauty of her body, and arouse a sense of pity. The legend claims that this ploy worked perfectly.

Gérôme shows a whole textbook of responses to surprise among the members of the court, although Phryne herself is covering not her body, but her eyes; each of the men in the court, of course, is looking straight at her. The artist also follows an ancient colour coding scheme, in which the flesh of women is pale, almost white, in contrast to the more sallow skin of men.

Henri Regnault (1843–1871), Summary Execution under the Moorish Kings of Grenada (1870), oil on canvas, 305 x 146 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

Henri Regnault, another great history painter of the time, painting the shocking Summary Execution under the Moorish Kings of Grenada (1870), with its careful use of colour contrast reinforcing the red of the blood spilled on the steps.

Although the Prix de Rome continued to promote narrative painting, corruption in its adjudication put some potentially great artists off for the rest of their careers.

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), The Annunciation to the Shepherds (1875), oil on canvas, 147.9 x 115.2 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1875, the young Jules Bastien-Lepage submitted The Annunciation to the Shepherds, was unsuccessful, and for the remaining few years of his career he abandoned history/religious painting. To emphasise surprise, he makes the angel as incongruous as possible: it is painted in almost Renaissance style using gold leaf and distinct colours. The two shepherds have facial expressions and body language which speaks plainly of their surprise.

Domenico Morelli (1823–1901), The Conversion of Saint Paul (1876), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Cattedrale di Altamura, Altamura, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

The following year, Domenico Morelli painted another popular religious motif of surprise in The Conversion of Saint Paul (1876): a fine example of peripeteia, and composed in a way which remained faithful to the story and delivering maximum visual impact.

Myths remained a popular platform for expressing surprise.

Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896), Perseus and Andromeda (1891), oil on canvas, 235 × 129.2 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Frederic, Lord Leighton’s Perseus and Andromeda from 1891 is traditional in its approach. Andromeda has here been attached to a rock by the sea, to appease the sea monster Cetus which has been destroying coastal cities of her parents’ kingdom. As the monster has returned to kill and eat the young princess, who should arrive on the scene but Perseus, fresh from his trip to kill Medusa the Gorgon.

Although at variance with most accounts, Leighton shows the hero astride the winged horse Pegasus, who grew from the remains of Medusa, loosing his arrows at Cetus. Andromeda has been twice surprised, with Cetus then Perseus, Cetus is certainly surprised to be coming under attack from Perseus, and Perseus is surprised to have discovered the beautiful Andromeda in her predicament.


Vera Tobin (2018) Elements of Surprise, Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot, Harvard UP. ISBN 978 0 674 98020 4.